Brennan Ward sat on a bed in his hotel room halfway across the world and cried. He was out of options, so he picked up the phone and called one of the people he could trust most – his father.
“I feel like sh*t,” Ward said.
The conversation went on for a while before it was time for another consultation. Ward was going through his lifelines. The next number he rang was a friend, the same one he got high with right before the 18-hour flight to Japan. His friend would know what to do.
“I can’t f*cking do this. I can’t f*cking do this,” Ward remembers saying.
“Send your guy out,” the voice on the other end of the call replied. “He’s got to go find some Vicodin or something.”
That’s really all Ward could do. His hands were tied. He didn’t know anyone outside of the select Americans chosen to represent Bellator overseas. So Google was his only option. Hmmm, where to begin? He tried typing in some keywords that would get him what he needed – his fix.
Ward was an exciting, world-class fighter. He was also a hardcore drug addict. Pills, cocaine, alcohol, heroin, you name it.
“I’m on the f*cking internet, bro. I’m searching like ‘drug use in Japan,’ ‘areas affected by drug use,’” Brennan said. “Like, I’m looking for places to send this motherf*cker to get me some f*cking something.”
While most of the world prepared to rin in the New Year of 2016 the following evening, Ward was dope-sick. Not the “puking-sh*tting” kind of dope-sick, but the anxiety-ridden-and-fatigue symptoms of withdrawal. Mental struggles were traditionally worse for Ward, so it really sucked.
It was not an ideal situation, but it was a familiar one. So familiar that he planned for it, like he always did. His system was down pat to kick the habit at just the right time. His moves were calculated, at least by an addict’s standards.
Maybe he should’ve smuggled drugs on the airplane as he initially planned. No, that wasn’t it. Ward was used to weening down his drug use to pass pre-fight testing, but he held on to his habit a bit too strongly in the weeks leading up to this one.
Three or four days sober, Ward went cold turkey and was miserable. Even worse, he knew the RIZIN drug test was legit. How legit? The “watch my dick piss” sort of legitimacy. There was no faking his urine sample, which is something he managed to pull off before previous fights.
He was to fight Ken Hasegawa at RIZIN’s New Year’s card the next day. Sleep was a necessity, so he prioritized. Lost, Ward found a temporary solution, the only one he could – beers.
“I’m like drinking f*cking Japanese beers in my hotel room at f*cking 4 o’clock in the morning, trying to catch a couple of hours of sleep before I got to fight this motherf*cker,” Ward recalled.
The struggle dragged on. Fighting a much larger opponent on short-notice, Ward made it to the arena through the bowels of Saitama Super Arena and into the locker room. The other rooms were full of fighters hitting pads and getting final instructions, but not Ward.
“I was just dragging ass,” Ward remembers. “I didn’t warm up. F*ck no. Bob Sapp still has our mitts. Like we just gave our mitts to Bob Sapp because he needed mitts. I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m not using these f*cking things. Go ahead.’”
When it came time to fight, against all odds, Ward did what he did most of the time. He performed. The walkout, in particular, was exhilarating and injected some life into his weary body.
“Once they stuffed me in this f*cking chute, this tunnel to bring me up, once I seen that crowd, it was crazy. The adrenaline. The goosebumps. I remember jumping down the flight of stairs,” Ward said. “I felt so weightless. I really did. I felt good at that moment, and I got in there. Plus, I had wrestling shoes on, so I was like, ‘You know what? I might be able to f*cking crack this dude and win this f*cking fight.”
The fight was exciting from what he can remember, though he’s pretty sure the grounded knees from a hulking Hasegawa are what caused one of his worst career concussions. Most importantly, Ward won. A second-round rear-naked choke sealed the deal. Somehow, someway, Ward was victorious for the fourth time in the calendar year.
Perhaps it was Ward’s message to a higher power that pushed him over the line to victory, though the promise he made was swiftly and unsurprisingly broken after a drunken plane ride home.
“I swore to God. I said, ‘God, if you can get me through this f*cking fight, I’ll never do f*cking drugs again,’” Ward said. “And I mean, obviously not one minute after it landed at LaGuardia did I have f*cking dope in my hand.”
What happened in Japan was a representation of how Ward did things. The general public knew him for his exciting fights, ripped physique and mic skills, but addiction was a large part of his identity outside of the cage, and those closest to him knew it.
Ward received strange looks as he snorted lines in the bathroom of his local bar. He constantly sought to avoid recognition, but this time he blew it. Ward was partying too close to home, something he was usually very leery of.
“What?” Ward said to the two guys giving him side eyes in the men’s room as he did another bump.
“Aren’t you fighting in like a week?” one of the guys responded, before Ward affirmed their suspicion.
“That’s how I was getting down,” Ward recalls.
In a sport that touts the most dedicated, highly trained athletes who are on incredible workout regiments, Ward is astounded by how much of an anomaly he was. Training camps didn’t exist. It was pretty much sign a contract, show up the night of the fight and get paid afterward.
Ward estimates the last time he took fighting seriously in the gym was his 2014 title-fight loss to then-champion Alexander Shlemenko at Bellator 114.
From that point on, it was little training and lots of partying. For Ward, MMA became an easy cash grab. And shockingly enough, his lack of training did not backfire. Though he went 4-0 in 2015, Ward reflects on his most successful year as the tipping point.
The more he won, the more money he made. The more money he made, the more he drugged. The more he drugged, the more he felt invincible. MMA enabled his rock star lifestyle. No one could stand in the way of Brennan Ward – inside or outside the cage.
“MMA was easy money and allowed me to live a f*cking reckless, crazy lifestyle,” Ward said. “I could just travel, party, and get f*cked up. I mean, think about it. I didn’t train the last couple of years of my career, so it was just like I didn’t even have to train. I was just like f*cking partying, dude, just partying. That’s it. MMA just let me f*cking party for two years straight. And not train. It was like nobody could tell me to stop – nobody.”
Don’t get it twisted. It’s very important to Ward that there isn’t a misconception. It wasn’t that his family and friends didn’t try to keep him in line. They tried constantly. But you can’t help someone you can’t find. Sick of being nagged, Ward would travel all over the U.S. using only burner phones, which he would physically toss out after each fight.
“Ask (my coach) Greg Rebello how many numbers for me he has in his phone. Go ahead. Ask anybody,” Ward said. “Anyone who really knows me the last 10, 20 years, they probably have hundreds of phone numbers for me, bro. Because I have all burner phones. I just got a real phone, like a real phone plan. I had burners for the last 15 years. I would be done with a fight, and I’d throw my phone out the f*cking window of a car or on a ferry or wherever the f*ck I was. I’d go to Walmart, buy a new burner. You couldn’t find me, nevermind talk sense into me, dude. You could barely find me. ‘Where’s Brennan?’ He’s in California. He’s down in f*cking Montauck. Oh, he’s f*cking down in Jersey. Oh, he’s in f*cking Florida.’ Like, I was just bouncing around, getting f*cked up. It was a crazy act.”
For each fight, Ward rounded up whomever would lend him a hand. Fight night was the extent of their fight-preparatory interactions.
“Everyone kind of knew what was going on,” Ward said. “They were like, ‘Oh f*ck, Brennan is fighting? Oh boy. Who’s he fighting? Oh, he’s fighting Paul Daley? Sh*t, is he even training? No? Oh boy. You know?’ That’s kind of how it was.”
Looking back on it, Ward can’t believe the opportunities bestowed upon him. With no preparation, he stepped in the cage with a highly respected legend, Paul Daley, in 2017.
“Who fights a dude like Paul Daley and doesn’t even train?” Ward laughed. “… My boy missed our flight because he was in rehab when I fought Paul. I should’ve f*cking gone with him. But I fought on national television and got my face caved in. I was there f*cking winning the fight when I lost because I was acting up. I’m out there acting a fool. I wasn’t training. I was just showing up.”
‘When everything f*cking dive-bombed’
After a 4-0 year in 2015, things took a turn both inside and outside the cage for Ward. Pills to heroin. Heroin to fentanyl. As the drugs took over, Ward racked up losses. He went 1-3 after his New Year’s Eve win for RIZIN.
“Everything, in my mind, was in control still. ‘We’re all right. We’re all right. We’re good.’ Then, you know, the (opioid) epidemic happens, and it’s hard to find those, dude,” Ward explained. “So now we’re doing heroin, and the heroin was still pretty functional, dude. It’s still pretty functional. It’s when the fentanyl came around that we were all f*cked. That’s when everything f*cking dive-bombed.”
In 2018, Ward retired. His decision was two-fold. He wanted to get straight edge but also couldn’t take the guilt – the guilt of not living up to his potential, the guilt of half-assing it, the guilt of blowing an opportunity. That was the worst.
“That will f*ck you up in the head. When you know you’re not doing the right things to win, you don’t feel like you deserve to win,” Ward said. “So when you’re like, ‘Aw, f*ck, man, I know I shouldn’t have a drug habit. I know I shouldn’t be f*cking drinking. I should be f*cking training.’ That used to f*ck with me real bad. I haven’t met anyone else like me in this f*cking sport. Maybe there is. Maybe there isn’t. If there is, f*ck, I just don’t know. I know for me personally it would really f*cking eat me up, even at the fights.
“Dude, I wasn’t there mentally. I wasn’t there physically. I was just like, ‘If I win, I win. If I lose, I lose.’ Because I was like, f*ck, I have this great opportunity on national television to make decent money. I’ve got all this f*cking sh*t, but yo, I’m sniffing painkillers all day everyday. I’m drinking every f*cking night. I’m not working for it, you know what I mean? That would really f*ck with me. … There was no way for me to even tell myself that, ‘Yeah, bro, you do deserve to win this fight. Go sniff some more f*cking oxy.’ Like, no. So once that’s in your head, dude, it’s like just, I’m out there just swinging for the stars, knowing that the fight is not leaving the first round.”
Ward exited combat sports but kept his job as a union worker, a grueling profession that easily reinforces bad habits of addicts, many of whom he encountered on the job. Interspersed with failed rehab stints, Ward always circled back to the start. Life didn’t get easier without MMA.
Forming a loving family of his own, Ward and his girlfriend had their first child, a daughter. The two women in his life proved to be a bright light in a dark time, but the rebound wasn’t immediate.
“Oh my God, dude,” Ward said, of his girlfriend. “I would be dead without her. I would be dead or 100 percent locked up without her. She’s the reason. She’s my whole reason for being here, the whole reason for being.”
Dark times and two lights
Ward’s phone rang. “Hey, what’s up, Brennan? Are you coming to the cookout?”
“Yeah, I’m on my f*cking way,” Ward responded, but he wasn’t on his way.
That was a common occurrence. He frequently blew off family functions when hunting down drugs. It’s something that bothers Ward immensely looking back on it, but drugs dictated his schedule for years. Holidays and family days weren’t the priority – and that destroyed him inside.
In 2016, Ward was arrested after an altercation with police outside a bar in Waterford, Conn. The legal process continued through 2020 after Ward was sentenced to 120 days in prison in December 2019.
That’s when things started to turn around. A melting pot of deeply emotional triggers pushed Ward down his path to true recovery.
“It was getting arrested. It was going to jail. It’s being in f*cking rehab. It was missing my daughter’s first birthday because I’m in rehab, missing my daughter’s first Christmas because I was in prison,” Ward said. “That’s it once you start going down that road.”
Ward’s 2-year-old daughter gave a new meaning to his life. He’s gone from drug addict to a parent who prioritizes his child’s life above all else. That’s a far call from the man of even two years ago. Some memories serve as inspiration of the way things should be, while others are a blueprint of what never to do again.
“My daughter’s baby shower, dude. I didn’t even go set up for her f*cking baby shower, bro, because I had to go get dope because I was sick,” Ward said. “I’m dope-sick, like, ‘No, I’m not setting up for my f*cking kid’s shower. I have to go get a bag of dope.’ Come on, man. It makes you do sh*t like that. That is not me. It’s about zero degrees out where I live right now. I’ll run 10 miles naked right now to go pick up a f*cking can of soup for my kid. I’ll f*cking do whatever. And I was not up for that important event because I needed to go get drugs.
“If you’re a f*cking human and you have a heart, you can’t take that no more, man. You can’t let yourself do that anymore. I don’t think everyone gets to that point, because you see people who eventually die from this and don’t get clean. I couldn’t do it no more. I couldn’t destroy lives anymore. My daughter’s not going to have a drug addict for father. I know girls who have drug addicts for fathers, and they did not turn out all right. All of them.”
While the behavior was unacceptable and disgusts him to think about, Ward understands that’s the effect drugs have on people. Those who truly know him saw his kindness even during his worst times. He never once asked for money or stole, and he continued to put on his work boots and make his own living – even if it was just to fund his addiction.
Nothing publicly displayed the polarity of Ward’s addiction and his true personality more than one month after his arrest when he was in the news for a different reason. In a heroic action, Ward saved a child from traffic as a bystander who saw something gone awry and decided to step in. It was a highly publicized action but far from his only good one.
“If you know me, you’d know what I do for people. You’d know what I do for the people I care about and for the kids around here, for people around here, for the dudes I work with, for younger guys I work with. I give the shirt off my back,” Ward said. “That’s why these people have stood by me. That’s why the people who are real close to me have stood by me because they know I’m a f*cking good dude. But when I’m all f*cked up, all bets are off. There’s no telling what I’m going to do.”
It’s a blistery Friday evening in New England. Two training partners finish up practice in Connecticut and real-life talk begins. In a reversal of roles, Ward gives the advice now. This time, to a teammate trying to get over addiction struggles of his own.
“It’s f*cking waking up for work and having to train after and training before,” the teammate said.
“Yeah, bro. It’s f*cking hard,” Ward responded. “I wake up at 4 o’clock every day, go to the gym, go to work, and then f*cking three or four nights a week I’m training again after work – and all weekend. It’s a f*cking grind, bro. But, dude, the grind me and you just went through, bro. How about being dope-sick, bro? At 4 o’clock in the morning on your way to work and no one answering the phone. How about that? Because that is way worse than what I’m f*cking doing right now do. I’m lucky.”
Proving something to himself, his own biggest critic, is massive. But maybe even more, Ward wants to set an example. He wants to be someone his daughter can look up to, most definitely, but he doesn’t want her to be the only one. It’s not something he does for the publicity. It’s something he does because it’s instilled in his being. There are people out there who are going through it and need help – and no one has gone through it like Brennan Ward.
“I’ve never f*cking talked about it to because you don’t have to. But it’s what you have to do because I don’t want anyone to f*cking feel like I used to feel. No one should feel like that. No one should f*cking feel like that,” Ward said. “… If I can tell them how I think about it and how I have to force it, I do have to force it. Listen, when you’re sitting in these f*cking rehabs, you’ve got a bunch of these happy-go-lucky f*cking motherf*ckers up there, like, ‘Oh, life is so beautiful.’ F*ck you, dude. You’re a f*cking cornball. Get out of here. Someone get the hook and get this f*cking guy out of here. Let me talk to somebody real, someone like me who will f*cking tell you that life is not f*cking easy, bro. It’s never going to be easy. We’re going to have to grind it. But I would much rather grind it out than to be f*cking dead.”
It hits anybody
Drug addiction does not discriminate.
Ward grew up in Connecticut, a state that fell in love with him and came out in droves every time he competed. A wrestler, skateboarder and surfboarder, Ward was a standout athlete from the get-go. His father a union boilermaker and his mother a schoolteacher, Ward was born into the most blue collar of blue-collared families. He works as a union carpenter. His sister is a nurse.
“We are like America,” Ward laughed.
He began his professional MMA career at a young age. His drug habit followed not too long after. This, despite the happy upbringing and God-given genetics.
“It hits anybody,” Ward said. “Those drugs, there’s no f*cking set demographic for that. Like people used to think like, ‘Oh, the junkie under the bridge.’ No, dude.”
“Anybody” includes people he loved. Friends in Ward’s circle have been fatally overcome by addiction in recent years, something Ward talks about with audible pain in his voice.
“Since the time I’ve been away from MMA these last couple of years, bro, I’ve lost so many of my f*cking boys. So many of my boys. Gone. F*cking dead. It’s not something to f*ck around with, especially when you’re a dude like me,” Ward said. “How about my early interviews? I said, ‘I smoke and drink, I f*ck, blah, blah, blah.’ That is me. Yeah, that was a funny interview, and I was halfway saying it to be funny. But that’s me. I don’t do anything recreationally. I don’t f*cking drink recreationally. I don’t f*cking do drugs recreationally. I get f*cked up, and I become a f*cking addict. So like, I just can’t do nothing. Yeah, I feel really f*cking lucky that I didn’t die because dudes I did drugs with every single day are dead – every day. Like, he just got the bad bag, and I didn’t like. That sh*t is f*cking real.”
As of this month, Ward is one year sober.
“(Drugs were) the way I coped with everything for well over 10 years. That’s how I f*cking dealt with every emotion,” Ward said. “So now in this last year, it’s like I’m learning life all over again. Like actually dealing with my emotions, having to deal with situations without f*cking being high. It’s tough in those days that are harder than others. But I made it through that dark, dark, dark f*cking time.”
His family life is in order. He’s a loving father and boyfriend. He’s managing working and training. So what’s next for him to prove? That journey begins Feb. 19 at his old stomping grounds. At 34, Ward is out of retirement and will make his mixed martial arts return at Bellator 274 when he fights Brandon Bell at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn.
If you ever had the opportunity to witness a Brennan Ward fight live in Connecticut, you get it. It was truly something special. He wasn’t Conor McGregor-status of popularity globally, but it was hard to tell in person when the roof blew off Mohegan Sun. After each vintage knockout, the crowd would explode. The energy was raw, and he was a massive ticket-seller for Bellator.
Ward doesn’t know what to expect the walkout to feel like this time around, but he hopes it sparks some nostalgia for people who used to love watching him fight.
“I’m fired the f*ck up,” Ward said. “I mean, I’ve been out for a f*cking hot minute, so I don’t know if the place is going to do what it used to. That place used to sell out when I fought there. Maybe they’ll be like, ‘Oh, this motherf*cker is fighting again? Let’s go.”
The goal is welterweight. Middleweight was considered, but being clean and sober proved to make staying slim easier than expected. At either weight, Ward promises he still can pack a mean punch and stuff your favorite fighter’s best takedown attempt.
“If I want to push for a f*cking title, I could push for a title,” Ward said. “If I just want to f*cking make a couple of bucks, I’ll just make a couple bucks. If I want to go big, I’ll go big. If I don’t, if I want to just stay working and just fight a couple of times a year for the next couple of years, then I could do that, too.”
His reputation was once someone who was hard to find. And for years, Ward wished to embody his potential-fulfilling self during his fighting career. On Feb. 19, Ward will finally get the chance to become that individual and right some wrongs one step at a time.
“This is going to f*cking let me know that I didn’t blow my f*cking career,” Ward said. “Yeah, it made me lose some time. I lost the last f*cking four years because of it. I lost the six years because of it. The last two years of my career were f*cking trash. 2016, 2017? I wish I stopped playing after 2015. Let me show motherf*ckers what happens when I’m clean. I don’t think I can lose. Honestly, I don’t think I can f*cking lose.”